BBS Door History / John Pritchett Interview

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bulletin Board Systems ruled the connected computer world. And helping to drive that supremacy were games, or doors, that allowed connected users thousands of miles away from one another to compete, band together, and socialize. To ensure that this moment in history is not forgotten and to celebrate the classic doors that made it so memorable, we've just launched the GameBanshee BBS where many of the most popular titles can be enjoyed and preserved.

But launching a BBS in 2014 isn't enough, so we've also tracked down some of the greatest door creators of all time for several new interviews here at GameBanshee. One of the most noteworthy and highly regarded games in the history of BBS doors is TradeWars, and while he wasn't the initial creator, developer John Pritchett has been involved with the development of the sci-fi strategy title for two full decades. Read on for our chat with John regarding his contributions to the game and its continued popularity over the many years since its inception:

GB: When were you first introduced to computers, and how long had you been tinkering with them prior to being introduced to the BBS scene?

John: I remember my step-mom was an early adopter of the IBM PC, and she spent about $4,000 for one of the original, basic IBM PC systems. That was back in 1982, I believe. It had dual floppy drives, but no hard drive. I remember playing Zork and other Infocom games on that machine. But my first machine was actually a Vic 20, followed soon after by a Commodore 64. I taught myself to program on those machines. Sprite and ASCII games. Peeks and pokes. I worked for awhile on a 4 inch monitor! I still have the first game I wrote, saved to a cassette drive. I doubt there's anything still on that tape, unfortunately.

GB: Those of us who spent a considerable amount of time with PCs during the 1980s and 1990s always had a PC model of choice, whether it was an Apple, a Tandy, a Commodore, or a straight-up IBM PC. What model would you consider to be your favorite during these two decades, and why?

John: After my early years on the Commodore and Vic 20, I graduated to my first PC compatible early in college. I've been a PC guy since then. I've always built my own and I'm into the whole overclocking scene.

GB: Are there any notable bulletin board systems that you used to connect to in the "early days" or any interesting BBS stories from your own experience that you can share with us? What ultimately led to your decision to begin work on TradeWars?

John: I wasn't an early adopter of BBSs. In fact, aside from a few brief visits to BBSs using work or school modems, I didn't have much experience with them until after I met Gary Martin, the original developer of TradeWars 2001 and 2002, and learned about his game. Interestingly, I had watched a friend, Ed, playing the game at a local college, UMKC, where he was an editor of the college newspaper that was publishing a comic strip I drew at the time. I found it mildly intriguing, but then went back to playing Lemmings with my friend.

A few years later, after I'd lost touch with Ed, I ran into him at an interview for a company called MultiService, which some serious BBSers will recognize as the parent company of Metropolis and later GamePort, but whose primary business was to process fuel credit cards for automobile and aviation fleets. It turns out Ed had left the university, where he was pre-med, and approached the owner of MultiService, where he had taken a job in the mail room, to pitch the idea of buying out Gary Martin's Metropolis BBS and turning it into a major, multi-state BBS network. The owner liked the idea, and he brought Gary and his wife, MaryAnn, to work for him running the massive BBS, which kept the name Metropolis, and was eventually active in all of the then Big 8 college towns (Metropolis and TradeWars were born in Lawrence, Kansas, home of the University of Kansas, and that's where Gary continues to live).

Long story short, I was working at MultiService for about 3 months before I met Gary Martin (I rear-ended his minivan on the way to work!). From that day on, I split my time between writing a paperless billing system and helping Gary and MaryAnn run Metropolis. Eventually Gary gave me the opportunity to take over support for TradeWars and I took him up on it. It didn't take long for me to realize that, of the two paths, I was much more interested in game development than developing financial software. So I left my job, moved back in with my mom, and went to work with Martech to write a sequel to TradeWars. What I eventually completed was TradeWars v3.

So that's my full experience with BBSs, having worked at Metropolis back in the early 90s (93-94).

GB: Were there any specific doors or PC games that you played prior to starting work on TradeWars that you used as a point of reference or inspiration?

John: No. In my efforts to document the history of TradeWars and door games in general, I did learn about many BBS door games later, including the original Tradewars by Chris Sherrick that came before Martin's version, as well as many TW variants that came after. My favorite non-TW door would be Legends of the Red Dragon by Seth Able Robinson. I actually approached Robinson to take LORD off his hands, but MultiService beat me to it by a month!

GB: At what point did you start actively developing applications for bulletin board systems, and how did this evolve into creating the Trade Wars Game Server? What influenced you to pursue the strategy genre versus another type of game entirely?

John: As I mentioned before, I fell into TradeWars development by blind luck and never had any intention of developing such a game. What attracted me to it, though, was my interest in story telling. I recognized TradeWars as a fun game, but with a relatively blank slate in terms of its fiction. While I've primarily worked to keep TW unchanged in terms of gameplay, I have developed a completely new fictional world, inspired by the original fiction, over the last 20 years. I'm working toward an opportunity to finally introduce this new fiction with a TradeWars reboot.

BTW, I created TWGS entirely as a way to preserve the classic game of TradeWars for modern players. It was clear that the BBS was in decline, and while I'm glad to see that it survives through the efforts of devoted hobbyists, I wanted to make TradeWars more easily accessible to anyone who wanted to see first-hand what an online multiplayer game would have been like in the days before the Internet.

GB: In your opinion, what do you think made TradeWars stand out from the countless other door games available at the time? What made the game unique and secure its place in BBS door history?

John: First, keep in mind that what made TradeWars unique and successful early on was lost by later versions of the game. Original TradeWars was multiplayer, but not interactive. It was a more casual game. A player was only able to play for a limited amount of time each day, and it was the anticipation of the game that made it so addictive. Once TW became fully interactive, it became as hard-core a game as you'll find. But when it was most successful, when it reached a high degree of saturation in its market (the BBS online scene) back in the early 90s, it was serial multiplayer, meaning you'd play your turns, then step back and let the other players play their turns in the same game. A lot of modern social media games are like this, where you share a gameworld with other players, but you never really interact with them directly. This allows the game to be both casual and multiplayer, a combination that is difficult to accomplish with any truly interactive design.

Obviously TradeWars was not the only BBS game with this serial multiplayer design. That design was a staple of BBS games by necessity. I think what made TradeWars stand out was that it was the first multiplayer widely available space trader, a genre that is as much a fixture of computer gaming as dungeon crawlers, with Sherrick's original version having come out in 1984, the same year Elite, the first space combat sim, came out. If not TradeWars, some other game would have filled that niche. There have always been space trader games from the earliest days of computers (the first known game was 1974's Star Trader, on which TradeWars is based), and it continues to be a major genre today with Star Citizen, the Elite reboot, Eve, etc.

GB: Considering that your games were released as shareware with the option to buy a registration code, was your plan always to make your BBS development a for-profit venture? Can you give us some idea of how many TradeWars registrations have been purchased over the years and what sort of impact the revenue has had on your life since beginning work on the title?

John: The Martins made most of the decisions about registration policy before I got involved with the game. Gary Martin actually sold about 20K registration codes for TradeWars back in the late 80s to early 90s. Keep in mind that these were registrations to host the game, not to play it, so it's not a great measure of how much the game was played back then. But if you look at the graph of active BBSs as compared to TradeWars registrations, there is a direct correlation, with TW being registered fairly consistently on about 1/3 of all BBSs, which would have meant it was available to about a million players at the height of its popularity. You can see this data at my TW museum at . As a summary, about 22,000 sites have hosted TradeWars in 59 countries from 1986 to the present, with some sites hosting the game without interruption for over 25 years. But these numbers are a low estimate of the number who hosted and played the game because it was always aggressively pirated.

For me personally, the only reason I have continued to charge for registrations has been to protect my trademark and copyrights on the game, since I plan to continue to develop the game in the future. But I created a registration model for TWGS that allows anyone to explore the game for free, but that makes larger public game sites more expensive so those who choose to run such sites can have some degree of exclusivity.

TradeWars earned the Martins some significant money in the early days, and even when I took over the game it was generating a decent amount to supplement my income for about 10 years, but it has never been a major financial success. The model itself, selling to those who host the game and not the players, is both a major factor in its popular success and in its lack of significant commercial success. At this point, I'd rather the game be free and continue to be played than to try to bring in any significant revenue. For me, it's about keeping the game alive for modern gamers to experience a living example of online gaming history.

GB: To conclude, is there anything you would like people to know about the work you've done outside of BBS door development, or any projects you are actively working on at the moment?

John: I've been blessed to be an indie game developer starting way back in 1994 when I first got involved with TradeWars. Since that time I have continued to work on TradeWars, including a remake in 2002 called TradeWars: Dark Millennium by Realm Interactive, a company that evolved into Vigil and now CryTek USA. I also worked with 21-6 Productions on a spin-off that was planned as a launch title for InstantAction's (formerly Garage Games) game portal being opened back in 2009(ish) (which fell through) and also a launch title for Windows Phone in 2010 (which, again, fell through). So I have continued to push for TW development and I will continue to do so. But aside from TW and a lot of incomplete projects, I wrote the physics for Rocketbowl 360 for X-Box in 2008, and I am currently working as the physics programmer for Chris and Erin Roberts? (Wing Commander and Privateer authors) new universe sim Star Citizen. I've been given the opportunity to create the flight model for spaceships in the game, and though it's currently available to backers of the game through the Arena Commander combat simulation module, it's still very much a work in progress. Reviews have been mixed, anywhere from the best space flight simulation ever written (include Chris Roberts in that camp) to total rubbish (put Erin Roberts in that camp). I definitely expect to be busy with Star Citizen development for quite a while, but I fully intend to get back to TradeWars projects of one sort or another as soon as I can. TradeWars will live on!

GB: Thanks for your time, John! Don't forget to check out the GameBanshee BBS!